Salat (Ritual Prayer)

I met Maryam, a 16-year-old Somali girl, during my first visit to Abubakar As-Saddique, the Faribault mosque in the winter 2011. Maryam spoke beautifully about her dedication to Islam and she often even quoted hadith (tradition of the Prophet) and Qur’anic verses as part of her regular speech. Maryam’s subsequent description of her participation in salat (ritual prayer) sheds light on the importance of prayer in the Islamic tradition as it is practiced by the Somali Muslim community in Faribault.

Prayer is a way of life. We worship God every time we pray… I need to do every prayer cycle, otherwise God is not going to be with me. —Maryam

The type of prayer Maryam is referring to, salat, is the second of five pillars of Islam and it is an obligatory practice preformed by observant Muslims at five specific times each day.1  Each prayer consists of ritually choreographed movements and the recitation of selections from the Qur’an. The Pluralism Project describes salat in the following way:

Muslims perform the ritual Salat five times a day, just as Muhammad did; standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating the body before God and reciting Qur'anic passages teach humility and dependence on God. Prayers are performed at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. While it is preferable to pray in a mosque (masjid), with fellow believers, it is also permissible to pray alone in a clean place. Many families pray together in their homes, at least in the morning and evening. Before the prayers, Muslims remove their shoes, perform ritual ablutions, and state their intention to worship. In the mosque, an imam, a learned community member, often leads prayers; prayers are performed in cycles of bowing and prostration called rak'a. Muslims, wherever they are, pray in the direction (qiblah) of the Ka'bah in Makkah, usually marked by a mihrab in a mosque wall. Around the world, millions of Muslims pray five times daily, orienting their lives —individually and as a community — toward God.2

When I pray I feel like something big is off my shoulders, like I had a backpack on and I take it off and set it down... Lighter. I just feel lighter, closer to God, like I am doing the right thing. —Maryam

In our conversation, Maryam further stressed the importance of salat by revealing that it is through prayer that she establishes nearness to God:

When I put my face down in prayer, that’s the time I feel closest to God. I don’t know why but I feel like God can hear [everything I say] instantly, like somebody’s in front of me. The prophet Muhammad said, salat is like a river, at the steps of your door. You go to the river to wash your body five times a day. So prayer is just like washing every sin out of your body. You go to that river every day, five times, so you don’t have any sins by the end of the day. Prayer is just a way to wash the sins off, calm ourselves, worship God…when I pray I feel like something big is off my shoulders, like I had a backpack on and I take it off and set it down. How does that feel? Lighter. I just feel lighter, closer to God, like I am doing the right thing.3

Maryam’s description of salat reveals the important role of prayer for becoming closer to God. For Maryam, God is made present, as if “somebody’s in front of me,” through the practice of ritual prayer. Maryam’s friend, Khadija, also told me that when she is in prayer “[she is] most close to God in this world” and “[she feels] like God is watching [her] face to face.” The girls understand themselves as actively watched by God and, through their ritual practices, they attempt to render God’s gaze even closer.

  1. The Five Pillars are the five fundamental practices of Islam, which are summarized in the hadith of Gabriel. They include the Shahadah, salat (ritual prayer), zakat (alms tax), fasting on Ramadan, and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

  1. While informative, this description should not be understood as categorically applying to all Muslims everywhere. Diana L. Eck, On Common Ground: World Religions in America Vers. 3, Computer software (Cambridge, MA: The Pluralism Project, 2008), 9.

  1. Maryam, conversation with author, February 5, 2011.